His name is Abelardo. He is a twenty-seven-year-old subsistence farmer that has struggled to provide for his wife Edith and daughter Allisa.
It was easier for the high plains farmers two generations ago when his grandfather owned a large tract of land. The work was still done by primitive methods but the yield was sufficient for the family. When Abelardo's father received his portion of the land it had been divided among the brothers and by the time Abelardo inherited his land it was little more than a garden spot.
Over the last two years I have grown very fond of this humble family. They opened their small adobe (mud) home to me the first time we met and with each visit we have discovered more common threads that all fathers share. Men in every culture, that love and cherish their families struggle to do the best they can and this Andes Mountain, Inca father, is no different.
Allisa is growing so quickly. The first time I saw her she was about two years. Her cheeks were sun and wind burned then, and still are. The new pair of shoes I gave her on the last trip were lined up neatly under the only bed in the house and today she was wearing the pair of yard sale kids cowboy boots that were to big for her when I took them to her 3 months ago. About ten minutes after I arrived she came close, paused, gave me a quick sideways glance and with one eye brow raised, she ever so slightly, pulled up the leg of her pants to show me that she was wearing the boots.
The house has no bathroom and there is no outhouse. The fields around the house serve all the needs and in most respects it is much more sanitary then the concentrated, open sewage ditches that we face in Iquitos.
We were chatting away and I noticed a "cuy" pronounced Ku-EE. It is the South American version of a guinea pig. I asked Abelardo if they were raising it for their own food or to sell. The answer was yes! The question sparked a huddled discussion with Edith and her sister and the next thing I know they snatched the little hamster looking thing, from off the dirt floor and butchered it five feet in front of me.
It was a painstaking and precise process, the details of which were way too horrible to describe here. They called a niece into the house to help with this spontaneous fiesta and the fur flew...so to speak. My attention and concern level began to elevate. They were making a strong case for vegetarianism but that was the least of my concerns. The two plastic basins that they were using to catch the blood, fur, entrails and fecal matter were the same two bowls that they washed the tomatoes and onions for the salad. The mysterious absence of dish soap, bleach or heavy doses of radiation served only to help me except the inevitable. Intestinal awareness is a new pass time for many foreign visitors who succumb to circumstances way beyond their control.
It occurred to me that this was not a typical midweek meal so I asked when they were going to eat the cuy's wife or friend or significant other and they said that it would be a fiesta on Christmas Day. This told me that this was a very special meal and turning down an offering of this magnitude would be a social, cultural and personal insult.
It really wasn’t the rodent or tomatoes and onions that scared me. It was the cooking conditions, absence of a wash basin, cross contamination, open water barrels that were carried from a mile away and the fact that I was handed the only spoon in the house.
It was dark around the fire place and the large earthen pots had black smoke marks up the sides. They kept adding twigs to the clay, hand made stove, to regulate the flame. Once the chickens were chased out of the cooking area we sat down on wooden benches and leaned against the dirt walls. The whole family dug in with a vengeance flipping the potato peals off with their thumbs nails and eating the entire meal with their fingers. I felt so.....civilized having the only spoon and all. Oh, yes ...these little rodents (the size of a small rabbit), taste like chicken.
What an amazing example of honest innocent graciousness. I was a visitor in their home and with a one minute conversation decided to kill the fatted guinea pig and share a feast with a new friend. For those that will be with us in Cusco this Christmas you will have the privilege of meeting this fine family. I asked if I could take them to town for a holiday meal when I return and they were thrilled with the Idea. I assured them that they were better off if I took them to a restaurant where I wouldn't be doing the cooking, and they agreed. I suspect they didn't trust my sanitation practices.
This is the first time I have been in the Cusco area without a translator. Veronica, Abelardo and their families have offered a friendship and understanding that transcends fluent language skills. The challenge of spending time with someone when you have a “four-year-old” vocabulary is not overwhelming at all when you learn to be comfortable with silence. For them.... my showing up is enough. For me.... their warmth and acceptance is all I need. They didn't judge me based on the Americana stereo types. They gave me a chance, and for that I am grateful.
I know that our Christmas dinner in Cusco will have more trimmings and less brutality but the value of a spontaneous gift will never be forgotten. I am not sure what it is about these people that compels them to give so much when they have so little. A new friend in Iquitos told me the other day that without sacrifice the fire will not burn. I am not sure that I understand all there is to know about sacrifice but I have seen examples of it over and over again, by humble people who I am proud to call my friends.
Until next time,